Wednesday, February 22, 2017

How to Plot a Mystery, Part 3: Quietly Give Your Heroes the Objects They Need

In the end, the heroes of Zootopia triumph by setting up a complicated sting on the villains, but they set it up on the spur of the moment, when they suddenly realize they have all the tools they need on them. Specifically, they need:
  • The key piece of evidence: A gun that shoots a blue toxin-pellet at animals that make them go savage.
  • A blueberry that will take the place of the toxin-pellet.
  • A voice recorder. 
In order for this to work without the audience simply rolling our eyes, the movie needed to quietly and logically get all of these objects into their hands, one by one. How do they do that?
  • Obviously, the gun is the whole reason they’re all there. At first, they had a whole train car full of evidence, but that blew up, giving them one last piece of evidence, the gun, which still has a pellet in it. They’re on their way to deliver it to the police station, and Mayor Bellwether has come to intercept it.
  • Amazingly, they just happen to have a blueberry on them. When Officer Hopps quit the force, she was working on her family farm when she realized what the toxin was. She suddenly hopped in the family’s truck and took off immediately, accidentally bringing along what they were selling, including a carton of blueberries. Later, Nick (who has always made fun of her for being a farmer) mockingly eats the blueberries while they drive. Finally, in the finale, she gets injured and he takes out his handkerchief to bind her wound, only to discover that he was using it to hold blueberries.
  • Finally, it’s established early on that Hopps always has a voice-recorder-pen on her. This has already been a plot point three times, and none of those times feels like a set up for later. Each feels like a self-sufficient scene with its own pay-off.
When these objects are being established, at no point do we say, “Why are they mentioning this? Are they just setting us up for something later?” When Nick snacks on the blueberries, it ties into his overall mockery of Hopps for being a farmer, so it feels like a pay-off for something that happened earlier, rather than a set-up for something in the future. Likewise, the use of the tape recorder has already paid off twice, and even been used as a verbal callback, so we’re not left wondering why they would mention it in advance or why she would have it on her at the end.

In retrospect, all of these objects were set up so that they would be in place at the end, but they were all set up subtly, without calling attention to themselves. Hitchcock was called a “director of objects”: This is because objects are so essential to thrillers and mysteries. A huge part of the creator’s job is to get all the right objects in the right places at the right time, without calling attention to it.

Finally, tomorrow, we’ll look at how they set us up to be fooled by the heroes.

Monday, February 20, 2017

How to Plot a Mystery, Part 2: Set Up the Villain Fake-Out

What’s interesting about Zootopia is that Hopps and Nick never really set out to figure out who the villain is. At first the mystery is set up as “Where have all these predators disappeared to?” and then as “Why are they going savage?” The question is never really asked “Who’s behind this?”, until they suddenly realize that it’s Bellwether in the middle of an action sequence. This is fine. Not every mystery needs every element of the genre.

This eases the burden on the writers because they don’t have to create an array of suspects, all of whom would have to have logical motivation. They only need to set up means, motive and opportunity for one person, and the audience isn’t likely to notice, because we’re never invited to suspect everyone.

As I watched the movie, I didn’t figure out who the villain was until the heroes figured it out, which is ideal. As with all the best villain-reveals, I was able to instantly flip my perspective and re-evaluate everything I’d seen, seeing how everything the villain had done, none of which seemed villainous at the time, could easily take on a sinister interpretation. Let’s go back and look at each of her previous appearances.

We first meet her, she gives Mayor Lionheart the badge to give to Hopps and gets shoved aside.
  • How it reads at the time: This is an amusing side character, and we’ll probably never see her again.
  • What we see in retrospect: We see her humiliation and anger.
She helps Hopps get unfired and get assigned to the disappearance case.
  • How it reads at the time: We like Bellwether for sticking up for her fellow underdog.
  • What we see in retrospect: She wants the case to go forward to serve her sinister plan.
She helps Hopps track the car, and talks more about her mistreatment by the mayor.
  • How it reads at the time: We’re getting more of a sense of her grievance at this point, but it still just seems like an interesting character note. If anything, it makes us wonder if Lionhart is going to be the villain.
  • What we see in retrospect: She’s leading them to where the mayor has the predators caged up.
She encourages Hopps at press conference.
  • How it reads at the time: She innocently puts Hopps forward and doesn’t realize what Hopps will do.
  • What we see in retrospect: She hopes Hopps will blame all predators, and she’s very happy afterwards.
She discourages Hopps from quitting.
  • How it reads at the time: We like her. In fact we side with her over our hero.
  • What we see in retrospect: Oddly enough, our reading of this scene doesn’t change. Bellwether genuinely likes Hopps, and really wants to help her. Prey must stick together, after all.
So by the time we get to the climactic scene, we’ve seen everything we need to see. We've seen that she has all the motivation she needs to be the villain, even though it didn’t seem villainous to us at the time, and we’ve seen her engage in villainous behavior even though it seemed positive at the time.

Next time, we’ll look at another element that sets up the finale.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

How to Plot a Mystery, Part 1: Work Backwards from the Climax

So I’ve wanted to talk about plotting for a while but I was waiting for a perfectly plotted movie to come along, and lo here it is. Perfect plots move heaven and earth without leaving a trace. It takes a tremendous amount of blood, sweat and tears to get every element in exactly the right spot, but if you’ve done it well, then it all seems to fall out that way naturally.

Let’s look at the climactic scene in Zootopia. If you haven’t seen the movie, then stop right now, because I’m about to spoil everything, but even if you have seen it, you could probably use a refresher:
  • Officer Hopps and conman Nick Wilde have discovered what is making predators go savage: blue balls of rage toxin shot out of a gun. They’re taking the gun back to the police as evidence when they unexpectedly run into Mayor Bellweather as they go through a natural history museum. She asks for the gun, but wonder how she knew they would be there and run for cover. She ends up with the gun and shoots Nick, who seems to turn savage and attack Hopps. Bellweather brags about her plan as Nick attacks Hopps, but then they reveal that Nick was just acting: they had replaced the toxin pellet with a blueberry, and Hopps hand recorded Bellweather on her recorder pen. Bellweather is arrested.
So let’s talk about what was necessary to make this scene work.
  • First of all, the movie needs to set up the villain fake-out, where we realized that the villain has been right there in front of us the whole time.
  • Next, Hopps and Nick had to have three items on them: The gun, a blueberry, and a sound recorder.
  • Finally, the movie needs to set up the hero fake-out. The heroes pull off a fake-out on the end not just on the villain, but also on the audience, and that has to be set up as well.
So we’ll look how these things are set up over the next few days. Before we begin, however, I thought that we’d take a look at the one thing that they don’t really set up: How Mayor Bellweather knew to find them in the Natural History Museum. It kind of makes sense: They were driving the train car full of evidence to the police station when it crashed, but then they get out and Hopps says:
We heard the toxin-cooks warn the bad guy that Hopps had taken the train, and we know that the mayor is good at using the traffic cams to track people through the city, so she might have tracked the train, seen it crash, figured out that they would have to cut through the Natural History Museum to get to the ZPD, and gone to confront them. I guess it kind of makes sense.

Hitchcock talked about “elevator moments”: moments in mysteries that didn’t really make sense, but you don’t realize that until later. This is a variation: the moment that does kind of make sense, but you can’t figure out how until later.

The point is, you can’t get away with it. As we’ll see, you have to set up a lot of stuff, and there’s just not time to set up stuff like how the mayor tracked them down to that spot.  Sometimes you just have to hope the audience goes along with it. You have to know which things the audience needs to know and which things on which they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Best of 2016, #1: Zootopia

What I Liked About It: 2016 will always be remembered as the year the Klan conquered America, but it’s also the year that saw one of the best (and most entertaining) movies about racism ever made. My daughter loves watching it, then we get to have in depth conversations about the dozen levels of racism subtly portrayed, from benign to malicious, and what’s problematic about each.

So many Rulebook Casefiles! Next week, we’ll spend the whole week on how the movie sets up the climactic scene, so for now let’s focus on one object runner that’s not part of that scene: Nick’s badge.
  • When Officer Hopps falls for the scam being run by Nick Wilde and his partner Finnick, Hopps naively puts a sticker-badge on Finnick, who is pretending to be a toddler.
  • When Hopps extorts Nicks into working with her on his case, Finnick laughs at him and puts the sticker on him: “She hustled you good! You’re a cop now Nick, you’re gonna need one of these! Have fun working with the fuzz!”
  • Later, when Hopps realizes that Nick has sabotaged the investigation, Nick sarcastically points to the sticker and says, “Madam, I have a fake badge. I would never impede your pretend investigation.”
  • Later, Hopps has convinced Nick to apply to be a cop, but then offends him, causing him to throw away his application and rip the sticker off.
  • Finally, after Nick graduates the academy, Hopps puts a real badge on him.
So the fake badge changes in meaning with each exchange: naïve maternalism, to badge of shame, to icon of sarcasm, to representation of dashed hopes, to earnest achievement.  Next week, we’ll focus on the exchange of three objects that are necessary for the plot, but this object is solely a source of meaning, and that meaning grows with each exchange.  

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Best of 2016, #2: 20th Century Women

The Problem: None!

For those of you who haven’t seen it: Annette Benning plays a single mom in 1979 with two boarders in her rotting California home, trying to raise her teenage son. It’s a crime she didn’t get an Oscar nomination.  (And neither did Amy Adams!  All so that Meryl could get her 50th nomination??)

What I Loved About It: Everything! It was such a relief to get this bracing blast of real life after all the grim brutality offered up by so many of the other movies. It turns out that life is a pretty interesting topic. This movie felt like it could have been made by Eric Rohmer, which is about the highest compliment I know how to pay.

Rulebook Casefile:
  • Find Unique But Universal Details: I had never heard of the pass-out game they play (that almost kills the son), but it seemed so real to my experience of adolescence, so I readily accepted it.
  • Find the Internecine Conflicts: Looking back on punk, and looking at what it means in retrospect, it would be tempting to show them clashing with preppies all the time, but as an actual punk in 1979, you were far more likely to get caught up in clashes between art punks and hardcore punks. It is our internecine conflicts that dominate our waking hours, not our larger societal roles.
  • Impose a Dramatic Question: This movie’s great strength is that it’s a free-ranging slice of life, but you still have to impose a bit of structure in order to make it feel like a coherent story. In this movie, at around the 20 minutes mark, Annette Benning asks the two women in her son’s life to help raise him. Then, near the end, she tells them to cool it. That’s all the structure you need, and Mills hangs his whole sprawling loosey-goosey movie on that rickety frame, which works just fine.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Best of 2016, #3: The Invitation

The Problem: None! Now that we’re in the top three, we’re down to movies that I unreservedly loved.

Warning: I know that not many of you saw this movie, and it’s best if you see it like I did, knowing next to nothing about it, so I would recommend that you read no further, go check it out, and then meet me back here. Unfortunately, I must include mild spoilers from this point on (albeit nothing you couldn’t guess from the trailer)

What I Liked About It: It’s a great movie about L.A. Like our last movie, it’s a great movie about self-destructive grief. It’s a great movie about how we all gaslight ourselves, especially in the age of Trump. We tell ourselves, “The world can’t possibly be this sinister. It’s not so bad. I must be crazy.” Then the bloodbath begins, and we ask, “Why didn’t I trust my terror?”

Rulebook Casefile: Establish the Nature of the Jeopardy. The Invitation is a fantastic thriller, but I hesitate to call it that. It has the structure of many great thrillers, where the real possibility persists for quite some time that everything might have a perfectly reasonable explanation (Think Rear Window). What makes this movie unique is how long it draws out that section of the movie. The sinister nature of the goings-on isn’t confirmed until the last possible moment, right at the beginning of Act Three.

So how do you draw things out that far? One way is to make every little line of dialogue or gesture seem ominous, because the filmmakers use lots of great tricks to put us deep inside the hero’s paranoid head. We jump because he jumps, even though we also keep our distance from him, doubting his sanity.

But the movie also uses a very simple trick. As our hero and heroine are on their way to this dinner party deep in the L.A. hills, they run over a coyote and mostly kill it. Once our hero realizes it can’t be saved, he casually puts it out of its misery with a mighty whack of a tire iron, then continues on his way as the credits roll. This is a way to establish that yes, there will be blood. Even as we doubt our hero’s paranoia later on, that disturbing moment of violence sets the tone. The first thing we saw was a killing, and we’re subconsciously expecting that this will once again become a killing movie. That sustains us during the long wait for the other shoe to drop.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Best of 2016 #4: Manchester By the Sea

(I know, I know, I’ve mostly just stuck to the Oscar nominees so far, but my top three aren’t, I promise)(I still haven’t seen Hidden Figures, by the way [didn’t get a screener], so no telling if that would have made it.)

The Problem: As with Moonlight, this one is pretty perfect, and I hate to criticize it. But also as with Moonlight, I just found its big plot turn to be such a downer that it was hard to love.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Unlike that movie, I thought that this one had far more humanity to it. Even when you’re going through horrible things, you just can’t be heavy all the time. Life moves on, to the extent that our two heroes keep getting caught up in the flow and forgetting to grieve (until they remember at certain moments). Lucas Hedges’s character isn’t going to just dump his two girlfriends because his dad died: Life must be lived.

I liked how this movie exemplified one of our old rules, Screw Ups Don’t Screw Up All Day Long. Casey Affleck’s character, in fact, has a problem in that he’s not screwing up as often as he’d like to. Unable to forgive himself for a horrible mistake, he really just wants to die, but he doesn’t want to kill himself, so he just vows to stay dead inside and throws himself in the way of danger whenever he can. Unfortunately, opportunities to live keep presenting themselves, and he can’t squirm out of the way fast enough. Women take an interest in him, forcing him to push them away, and his ex-wife forgives him, which is the last thing he wants. Worst of all, not enough people want to beat him up to satisfy his masochism, so he has to start bar fights on the flimsiest of pretenses in order to finally get the beating he feels he deserves.

Affleck is a screw-up, but you can’t screw up all the time. His life will always be a grand tragedy, but you can’t be tragic all the time.

His last bar fight, in fact, shows him to be a screw-up-like-a-fox. He has to prove, once and for all, that he’s not fit to be a father, so he waits until the ideal opportunity comes along to stage a final screw-up, ensuring that Hedges will find the ideal home and making everybody’s lives better (except the poor guy he sucker-punches to make it happen)

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Best Movies of 2016, #5: Moonlight

Does my sour mood extent even so far as this amazing movie?  It does!

The Problem: On the one hand, this is a pretty much perfect movie: It’s beautifully written, acted, directed, shot and scored. But, in keeping with the theme of the year, it still left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. As is so often the case with wildly-acclaimed movies, I couldn’t help but hold it up against the praise it’s gotten (even though I saw it shortly after it came out). If you go to Rotten Tomatoes, you see praise like “avoiding clichés, shattering stereotypes”, but does it do that? All of the characters are drug addicts, drug dealers, or fry cooks.

My biggest problem with this movie is that it gives straight white people exactly what they want to see of gay black sexuality: It’s sexless and brutally punished. Basically, the movie felt to me like a fantasy of black gay life at its worst. Now it’s ridiculous that I should say that: Both writers are gay, black, had crack-addicted mothers, and came from this particular housing project, so they should know how bad it is far better than I, but, on the other hand, they themselves didn’t end up like Chiron. I’ve said before that genre is how it feels, but drama is how it is, but this movie felt more like how it feels than how it is. 

Utlimately, this movie was more about inhumanity than humanity. The characters couldn’t breathe. I’m at the point in my life where I’m craving humanity when I go to the movies. Yes, I feel like a jerk for criticizing this movie, but I gotta call ‘em like I sees ‘em.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Use the Power of Silence. The world will talk at your hero, but one of the strongest reactions your hero can have is silence. We see how Chiron’s silence isolates him, but also how it elicits both frustration and sympathy from those who try to reach him. Every time he refuses to respond, he asserts his power over the speaker more profoundly than he could by speaking, and becomes a more compelling character. It feels very counterintuitive to write dialogue in which there’s no dialogue, but it can be just as compelling as a two-sided conversation.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Best Movies of 2016 #6: Birth of a Nation

What I Liked About It: You won’t find a more intense emotional journey than this movie (although our next movie is a close second). Better than any other film, this movie captures the intense outrage of life in slavery.

The Problem: As others have pointed out, the biggest problem with this movie is that they don’t show Nat Turner killing any kids, which is to say, while it does an amazing job capturing the horror of Turner’s situation, it refuses to grapple with the true horror of Turner’s actions in response.

You’ll recall that I had problems with 12 Years a Slave. I thought that movie had the ideal source material for creating an intense bond between the hero and the audience, because, as a free man sold into slavery of the worst kind for a limited amount of time, it had a situation that we could all could totally identify with, and yet I felt that movie was too cold and alienating to let us fully emotionally bond with the hero. This movie has the opposite problem: It commits to the task of forcing our full and total emotional identification, but in this case we have a slave whose story is not an ideal candidate for that.

One can try to argue that Nat Turner’s actions were justified, even when he killed kids, if one wants, but you can’t deny that he was a weird guy. We get brief flashes of Turner’s hallucinations, but not enough. It shows us his logical motivations, but glosses over the fact that one of his major motivations was a solar eclipse. If the movie had wanted to deal more forthrightly with the reality of Turner’s life and actions, it would have needed to forgo some of that intense identification and let us be a little alienated, wondering at the real man’s unknowable tinge of madness.

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Horror Feels More Real When It Has Ironies. They say that Trump is too hard to parody because impossible to exaggerate how evil or stupid he is. This too is the problem writers face when portraying slavery. One way to do this is to establish that this owner is “one of the good ones” and then show how inhumanly horrific slavery is at its “best”. Few scenes will stay with you like the one where a slave refuses to eat, so the overseer casually knocks his teeth out to better forcefeed him, all while the “good” owner watches, guilt-ridden, but silent. It’s that look of “What choice do I have? He won’t eat!” that finally drives home the horror, and makes the ending feel inevitable.